When people think about Ethiopia, many immediately think ‘famine’.
Many of us can recall the news that shook the world in October of 1984. BBC cameras captured thousands of Ethiopian children, weak, emaciated and huddled together in camps, flies buzzing around hair the colour of rust.
As a kid growing up in the 80s, I vividly remember the powerful and shocking television coverage. It was a big topic of conversation at the family dinner table—and on the playground. Thankfully, apathy ended with a global response involving governments, businesses, aid agencies, and individual donors. Planes zoomed to Ethiopia, loaded with life-saving food aid. And eventually, the hunger tide turned.
Ethiopia’s famine was a significant point in its history—and the world’s. The event helped shape the global humanitarian system we have today, with its quick, coordinated responses. Our memories of the famine exist as constant reminders that it simply can’t happen again.
A national stereotype
For me, like for many Canadians, the Ethiopian famine became something of an African stereotype. Until I started working at World Vision, it still shaped my perception of the country, despite the impressive changes that have happened in recent decades.
Recently, I had the honour to visit Ethiopia on a storytelling mission. What I found is a busy, growing, achieving country. Bustling cities, towns and villages are filled with children who’ve never known famine. Even bringing it up in casual conversation leaves many local people totally perplexed. True, drought and hunger continue to present big challenges. But the country has developed a capacity to cope and respond, with an ever-increasing hope for a sustainable and hunger free future.
The author with some new friends in Ethiopia. Photo: Max Moser
This hope, this promise, was so clear when I had the pleasure to join families in their homes as they enjoyed meals together. Across the country I witnessed friends and loved ones who used to suffer from extreme poverty and malnourishment gather to prepare meals which nourish, satisfy, and even delight. I directly saw the impact of World Vision’s programs. More and more people have been able to fully appreciate their incredible and unique food culture and pursue a better tomorrow.
As ceremonial coffees are poured, like English tea, conversation can easily drift toward Ethiopia’s world-class athletes—most of whom were born in the years following the famine—or its 53 Olympic medals. A Canadian visitor might hear about Ethiopia’s global awards for its virtually unbeatable coffee beans and blends. At little coffee shops across the country, nobody enjoys Ethiopian coffee more than Ethiopians. In one of these little shops, I sipped from freshly brewed, fire roasted goodness that makes your eyes roll to the back of your head.
A new kind of food flight
Ethiopia has transformed over the past 30 years, and now, so have all my perceptions and preconceived notions. As the pot bubbles and families and friends break Injara, their daily bread, they might share their country’s accomplishments with pride. Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. It’s also a political hub, headquarters of the powerful African Union, a unifying governing body much like the European Union.
Asfaw lives in a valley that was struck hard by the Ethiopian famine in 1986. His family now grows lush harvests of avocado, mango, lemon, banana and coffee. This provides enough for the family to eat year-round and enough surplus for things like school supplies. Photo: Chris Huber
This isn’t your parent’s Ethiopia. The country receiving airdrops of food aid in 1984 now boasts the largest national airline on the African continent. Canadian visitors to Addis Ababa, its capital city might be surprised by modern urban landscapes filled with office towers, coffee shops and restaurants.
Make no mistake, no one will forget the famine of 1984 or overlook the hard work Ethiopians are still doing to overcome poverty. But that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate and help build on Ethiopia’s incredible gains, and learn from its people.
It’s essential that we open our minds to all that Ethiopia celebrates, including the many wonderful foods its families enjoy together. You may even consider visiting someday. Get ready to be treated to a meal you’ll never forget!